On this day in 1776, Navy Captain John Barry, commander of the American warship Lexington, makes the first American naval capture of a British vessel when he takes command of the British warship HMS Edward off the coast of Virginia. The capture of the Edward and its cargo turned Captain Barry into a national hero and boosted the morale of the Continental forces.
Barry was born in the seaboard county of Wexford, Ireland, in 1745 and offered his services to the Continental Congress upon the outbreak of the American Revolution. Congress purchased Barry’s ship, Black Prince, which it renamed Alfred and placed under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins. It was the first ship to fly the American flag, raised by John Paul Jones.
Barry served with distinction throughout the American Revolution. At sea, he had continued success with the Lexington. On land, he raised a volunteer force to assist General Washington in the surprisingly successful Trenton, New Jersey, campaign of 1776-77. On May 29, 1781, Barry was wounded while successfully capturing the HMS Atlanta and the HMS Trepassy while in command of a new ship, Alliance. He recovered and successfully concluded the final naval battle of the Revolutionary War with a victory over the HMS Sybylle in March 1783.
Barry’s outstanding career has been memorialized on both sides of the Atlantic. A bridge bearing his name crosses the Delaware River, and Brooklyn, New York, is home to a park named for him. In addition, four U.S. Navy ships and a building at Villanova University carry his name, and statues in his honor stand in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and his birthplace, Wexford, Ireland. On September 13, 1981, President Ronald Reagan declared Commodore John Barry Day to honor a man he called one of the earliest and greatest American patriots, a man of great insight who perceived very early the need for American power on the sea.